Holmgren on Congo: ‘Signs of Hope’ Appearing

Post a Comment » Written on March 2nd, 2006     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

KARAWA, CONGO (March 2, 2006) – Kathy Holmgren says changes – both better and worse – in the Democratic Republic of Congo made for a “bittersweet” medical mission trip last month, her first time back to the country in 36 years.

Kathy, who served 10 months in 1970 as an Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) medical missionary in Congo, attracted worldwide media attention when she and her daughter, Calla, participated in a medical mission to Congo and missed the Super Bowl, where husband Mike Holmgren and his Seattle Seahawks battled the Pittsburgh Steelers for world champion bragging rights.

Calla Performs Surgery Kathy, a nurse and graduate of North Park University, and Calla, an obstetrician, traveled as part of an eight-member medical mission team comprised of physicians and former missionaries, led by Dr. Roger Thorpe, a surgeon, who also served in Congo years ago. Other Covenanters making the trip included former medical missionary Dr. Helen Berquist, Dr. Jim Holcomb, Dr. Bob DeMaster, Dr. Todd Ulmer, and Dorothy Blakeway, a retired Evangelical Free Church missionary. The mission was orchestrated by the Paul Carlson Partnership and Northwest Medical Teams, in cooperation with the Covenant Church of Congo and Covenant World Mission.

The team found a joyful hope among the people despite abject poverty worsened by a civil war that ended three years ago. The conflict devastated the region, destroying much of its infrastructure, and inflicting heavy casualties, forcing many residents to flee to live in the jungle.

“The people were the same,” says Kathy. “It was good to see the children. They have bright smiling faces. It was just really exciting. It brought back a lot of memories – I felt really old.”

Several hundred people greeted the medical team at the airport and later the group joined in a rousing worship service experience. Kathy says she is amazed at the people’s joy and faith in God because, as she puts it, “their existence is very meager.” One person told her, “All we have is God.”

The team trained doctors and nurses at the Covenant hospital in Karawa, treated patients, assessed the medical needs in Loko, and delivered a quantity of medical equipment shipped from the United States.

Kathy says she was proud of her daughter, who had not worked in such primitive conditions before. “I was impressed with how well Calla was able to adapt – this being her first time.”

Calla, also a North Park University graduate, performed a number of surgeries while training medical staff. One surgery included removing an abdominal mass that weighed more than 15 pounds. The woman had been living with the growth for seven years, Kathy notes. “What a big difference in that woman’s life.” (Top photo shows Calla, right, as she performs surgery and instructs other medical staff in newer procedures.)

Kathy also mused about her daughter’s surgical technique in a situation that requires doctors to operate differently. Suture (the material used to stitch and close wounds) is in extremely short supply, so Calla brought a considerable supply of the material with her. She thought she had done a good job of limiting its use during the surgeries she performed. Still, “They called her ‘the doctor who wasted all the suture,’ ” Kathy says, laughing.

Poor road conditions The scarcity of all items in the people’s lives was heartbreaking, says Kathy. Almost no one has a job, supplies are hard to obtain and goods are even harder to sell because of the primitive and dilapidated roads.

“The roads are worse than I’ve ever seen them,” says Thorpe, who served nearly 40 years as a medical missionary in Congo. “They are nearly impassable and the rainy season hasn’t begun. They won’t be able to get through when it starts raining.”

Signs of hope were beginning to appear. Kathy says she was especially excited about a communal garden that has been established for widows, because women generally have no way of earning money if a husband dies. A project also is beginning that will encourage girls to attend school beyond the elementary grades, developed by Women Ministries of the ECC.

One business recently opened in Karawa – the first since the end of the civil war. Five are now open in Gemena, several hours distant. “That’s an encouraging sign that the economy is picking up,” says Thorpe, adding that none were open toward the end of 2005.

Thorpe says he also is encouraged that the nation’s minister of public works, who grew up near Karawa, met the group when it arrived in Kinshasa and invited them to dinner. He donated $1,000 to the team and said Congo had just concluded a contract with the British government to repair the roads.

Seeing people that he had helped years ago also was heartwarming for Thorpe. A young woman named Eileen introduced herself, but the doctor already knew who she was. He recalled that her mother had miscarried several times when Thorpe served there years earlier. So, during one difficult pregnancy, Thorpe operated to close the mother’s cervix so that she could continue that pregnancy. The mother successfully gave birth to a little girl – Eileen – who now has a son of her own.

The trip lasted 17 days, but encountered some difficulty getting off the ground – at least for the return flight. The airplane on which the group was traveling overshot the runway and blew two tires, Kathy says. They also were delayed at another airport while the plane on which the South African president traveled was taking off.

It wasn’t until she returned home that she has been able to help Mike deal with the Super Bowl loss. Being away from him following the loss was hard, she adds.

On the day of the Super Bowl, ABC-TV broadcast a pre-game report from Karawa, featuring Kathy Holmgren. The reporter (and TV satellite connection) left Karawa, however, before the end of the game, making it necessary for Kathy to call her husband, Mike, using a different satellite telephone that Kathy had brought with her. Fortunately, another missionary’s cell phone worked after Kathy discovered problems with the access code for her own phone.

Kathy expressed surprise at all the media attention. “I had no idea that all this was going to happen,” she says. “I thought maybe they might say something.”

Kathy says she doesn’t know if she will make the arduous trip back to Congo. Thorpe says the trip probably will be his last to the African nation, but adds, “My kids keep reminding me that I said this the last two or three trips.”

Editor’s note: to see additional photos of the trip, please see Medical Mission Photos. To read earlier stories on the Holmgren trip, please see the following:

To read responses from readers to the Holmgren stories, please see the following:

To read a story published in 2004 concerning the life of Coach Holmgren, his faith and values, please see Mike Holmgren: His Life Reads Like a Good Book

Copyright © 2011 The Evangelical Covenant Church.

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